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Tony Ward: Timely tweak can stop scrum destroying game

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A giant step on the road back to reality for rugby was taken on Wednesday when the IRB announced a global trial of a 'crouch, bind, set' scrum engagement sequence.

The move is aimed at enhancing player welfare and reducing impact on engagement by up to 25pc in elite competition.

Implementation will begin at the start of next season in both hemispheres.

It follows extensive evaluation of the sequence during the IRB Pacific Cup, which indicated a more stable platform leading to fewer resets and more successful scrums.

In a revision of the 'crouch, touch, set' engagement sequence currently being trialled, props will be expected to bind using their outside arm after the referee has called 'bind' in the sequence.

The front-rows will maintain the bind (thereby providing a steadier foundation) until the referee calls 'set'. At that point the two packs will engage.

It sounds a simple modification, but the nett result could be so much more than mere semantics. Anything that addresses the biggest single bugbear in the modern game is well worth a shot, for as IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset so rightly says "the scrum is such a fundamental and dynamic part of our game."

We all want a competitive and meaningful engagement.

Policed

The governing body will also instruct referees to ensure that the ball does not enter the tunnel unless the scrum is square and stationary – and that a straight feed, ie, down the middle and not into the second-row, is strictly policed.

God be with the days when the hooker flapped, the scrum-half fed, the scrum locked, the quality of the strike determined the channel and all was right with the world.

As a back you lived for clean channel-one ball off the scrum.

No one wants to see resets and collapses followed by the inevitable tweedle dum, tweedle dee penalty and the best part of two minutes lost in the process.

The scrum has become an unadulterated mess, so convoluted and subjective that Wasps coach Dai Young – a former Wales and Lions tighthead – observed: "It is now too difficult to referee with so many of the calls 50-50. Even with my own experience of playing there, I cannot tell who should be penalised."

What chance does the referee have?

Young adds: "Scrummaging technique has given way to power and the team that does not get the hit (the one slower in judging the 'engage') looks for ways to offset that disadvantage. The hit has got to be sorted."

Hence this timely and promising new initiative.

Another former front-row, Alan Whelan, now based in the US, has made contact offering some points on a cancer capable of destroying the game in its current guise.

"The IRB has made many great strides in making rugby a safer and much cleaner game to play," he says.

"But as an ex-hooker I would say the scrum today is a total shambles. The ball is consistently put into the second-row or close to it, ensuring the fine art of hooking is long gone.

"The prize and reward that now wins games is the ability of tightheads to either pop the loosehead or force him to ground and win the penalty. This cheap tactic earns three points and can negate a sublime drop goal from 40 metres.

"It is refreshing to go to the archives, review some of the great matches and watch two packs get down and get at it without collapsing and without any mickey-mouse recitation from the referee".

"Awarding a penalty for a front-row player being either popped up or dropped down in a scrum is insanity. It has bred an entire new approach to front-row play known as the pop or drop technique and is ruining the game.

"Is it possible we could restore the scrum to the precise purpose for which it was intended... to win possession of the ball?

"To witness forwards gloating and clapping each other on the back because they conned the referee into awarding the low-life penalty is an insult to the generations of front-row forwards who did it the right way."

Bobby Windsor, one of the great front-row forwards of Pontypool, Wales and Lions fame, argues vehemently: "Take it back to the old laws of contesting scrums tooth and nail. How long is it since I saw a strike against the head? Just stopping the crooked feed would bring hookers back for starters."

Does it not tell us something when this generation of referees have become celebrities in their own right?

Whatever happened to the principle that the best referees were hardly ever noticed? Once, seen occasionally but seldom if ever heard, now seen, heard and dominating the TV screen more than any player.

Given the climax to the domestic season and the anticipation of the Lions tour, the trialling of the new scrum process is in danger of being overshadowed.

It must not be. There isn't any silver bullet, but this move could be a big step in the right direction and must be given the support it demands.

Pure class set Murphy apart from peers

I first saw Geordan Murphy play for Newbridge College in the mid-90s. Back then, he was an out-half and he had amazing presence that marked him out as one for the future.

I firmly believed that his career would see him donning the No 10 shirt and when he transferred to Leicester, I was convinced he would soon be challenging for the Ireland out-half jersey.

The next time I saw him play, it was at full-back for the Ireland U-21s in the company of Leo Cullen, Mick O'Driscoll, Bob Casey, Peter Stringer and Brian O'Driscoll against an England side that included Iain Balshaw, Mike Tindall, Steve Borthwick and Lewis Moody.

The transition wasn't just seamless, it was classy. And that is the word I will forever associate with one of our most naturally gifted players ever. Murphy had class and he had the backbone to express it.

He is retiring at the end of the season to become skills coach at Leicester. Quite how he will transmit the tricks of the trade and what comes naturally via coaching I don't know.

All I can do is wish him well in his new role and celebrate memories of class, pure class.

Picking lock more exciting than bashing door

I read the following in relation to the arrival of Sonny Bill Williams (right) in Japan for his brief money-filled sojourn:

"It's just as exciting to see James O'Connor or Danny Cipriani step or glide around an opponent as it is to see Jamie Roberts or Ma'a Nonu (presumably, Sonny Bill too) bludgeon their way straight over their opposite man."

Heaven help us, "just as exciting?"

Forgive the cynicism, but if bashing down the door equates with picking the lock, then we may as well all throw in the creative towel.

Irish Independent